This editorial will appear in Wednesday’s print edition.
When it comes to red light cameras, people tend to divide into two, diametrically opposite camps – motorist versions of the Sharks and the Jets
Some see the cameras as instruments of Big Brother and cash cows for local governments. They want them gone. Yesterday. And they have an ally in Tim Eyman, who is considering an initiative to cap fines and require voter approval before adding cameras.
Others view the cameras as a way to free up police for other work and deter drivers who run red lights, risking an exceptionally lethal crash: the T-bone. They want to keep the cameras. In fact, they’d like to have even more.
Although there’s been some indication that the cameras were making intersections safer, now the hard evidence is in. A new study of 62 cities by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety shows that red light cameras have significantly reduced traffic deaths at intersections equipped with cameras – and even at ones that aren’t. Those unmonitored intersections get the benefit of a safety “halo effect” when drivers are aware that the city uses cameras.
The IIHS concludes that between 2004 and 2008, the cameras reduced fatal crashes by 24 percent in the 14 cities that introduced the cameras between 1996 and 2004. That translates into 159 lives saved. If all large cities had the cameras the study’s authors write, another 656 lives could have been saved during that four-year period.
In 2009, 676 people were killed in the U.S. in red light crashes and another 113,000 were injured. The offending driver isn’t the one who usually dies; 64 percent of the fatalities were other drivers, pedestrians and cyclists.
Much of the criticism of red light cameras focuses on the revenue they generate for cities. That’s a legitimate concern. Cities should be able to recoup their costs for the camera programs and the resulting court proceedings, but fines shouldn’t be so steep that they erode public support for these valuable safety tools.
While the Eyman approach would go too far in micromanaging traffic enforcement, legislation proposed by state Rep. Connie Ladenburg, D-Tacoma, bears serious consideration.
Among other provisions, House Bill 1279 seeks to standardize the way cities adopt red light and speed cameras and the signs used to warn drivers about them. It would limit school-zone cameras to the beginning and end of the school day and address one of the most contentious aspects of red light cameras: the way they ticket drivers who make right turns on red.
Some drivers who don’t stop completely or long enough before turning are getting hefty fines – even though such slow-speed turns are not nearly as dangerous as blowing through a red light at an intersection.
Ladenburg’s legislation – which has bipartisan support from Reps. Katrina Asay, R-Milton; Bruce Dammeier, R-Puyallup; and Laurie Jinkins, D-Tacoma – could make it easier for cities to install the cameras by defusing some of the strongest arguments against them. As the IIHS study shows, that almost certainly would result in many lives saved.
To read the IIHS study, click here. Click on “research paper” to download a pdf version.